The Third Democratic Debate PPFA Preview

Admit it. You missed the art. Well, dear readers, the art missed you too.

This Thursday, we’ll finally have only a single Democratic debate to watch. Rejoice! (Unless you’re one of the 10 “major” candidates that didn’t qualify for it. Then don’t rejoice.) Let’s dive right into the only debate preview you’ll need.

Here are the ten candidates that will be competing in the third Democratic debate, listed in reverse order of their Real Clear Politics national polling average. I’ll also separate them into groups for easier consumption.


Group 1: At the Margins

Julian Castro — 0.8 RCP national average
Amy Klobuchar — 1.0 RCP national average

You have to wonder if Castro and Klobuchar would have preferred that a couple more candidates qualify to force a second night of debate. Though it’s nice to be in what many are calling the final 10, it’s tough to look like a contender when you’re on the edge of the debate stage, which traditionally is a spot where one gets fewer questions and less airtime. If it were two nights of six or seven debaters each, one would imagine that gives these two candidates more time and a better aesthetic, standing closer to the frontrunners. Castro and Klobuchar both deserve to be taken more seriously than end-podium candidates, but it’s that kind of primary.

Castro has been one of the three best debaters so far (after Booker and Warren, in my estimation), but he only has a sub-1 national polling average to show for it. It certainly feels like he’s trying out for the VP spot these days, so we can expect a lot of talk about immigration, the border, and other issues Democrats know President Trump will prioritize during the campaign.

Klobuchar is among the most well-credentialed candidates in the race, yet she is also barely registering in polls. Still, with a stronger pulse in Iowa, we can expect a lot of talk about the “heartland” and reaching crossover voters. There is still a scenario where a strong (top-three) Iowa result from the Minnesotan launches her into a competitive New Hampshire, where independents, who can vote in the party’s primary, should like her background.

Group 2: Still Biden Biding Time

Beto O’Rourke — 2.3 RCP national average
Cory Booker — 2.5 RCP national average
Andrew Yang — 2.7 RCP national average
Pete Buttigieg — 4.3 RCP national average

With the exception of the unique Yang candidacy, this group is comprised of candidates who are A) clearly mid-tier candidates, and B) would benefit enormously if the Biden Campaign derails. O’Rourke could play up his general election strengths by showing how he puts Texas in play (though his recent assault on assault rifles likely weakens that hope), Booker could subsume Biden’s African American supporters, and the young, extremely bright Buttigieg probably looks great in a world where Democratic voters get too nervous about Biden’s advanced age and perhaps deteriorating mental acuity. As a result, each of those three candidates have remained pretty patient, hoping Biden’s numbers are unsustainable but also unwilling to alienate his voters by attacking the party’s respected elder statesman.

Sooner or later, however, you’d have to think patience is the wrong play. Patience is among the reasons why Donald Trump’s numbers never crumbled four years ago. Each major candidate in 2015 assumed Trump couldn’t last and worried about losing his voters, so they waited for his inevitable decline and looked to others to force that decline. They waited too long. By the time Cruz and Rubio began attacking him, it was a desperate attempt to reverse the irreversible. My guess is at least one of O’Rourke, Booker, and Buttigieg learn that lesson and start targeting the polling leader — if not in the third debate, than in October’s fourth.

Oh, and Andrew Yang is going to talk about giving everyone a thousand dollars a month.

Group 3: The Contenders

Kamala Harris — 7.2 RCP national average
Bernie Sanders — 17.5 RCP national average

I know how it looks. Putting Harris and Sanders into the same group — when Harris’s polling average is far closer to Group 2 than to Sanders, and Sanders is nearly tied with Warren in Group 4 — is likely enough to rankle the easily rankleable Sanders supporters. Nevertheless, when we consider candidates’ potential to win a nomination, I think it’s reasonable to group these two candidates together.

For Sanders, I don’t see how one can make the case he belongs in the top tier. Biden’s polling numbers are dominant and Warren’s are ascendant. Neither are descriptions we can use for the Sanders Campaign. Here are national polling averages since the middle of March:

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Biden‘s post-announcement numbers leveled out, as post-announcement bumps tend to do, but they did level. Sanders, on the other hand, has bled support for some time, a trend that dates back to 2016; with many Democrats already having made up their mind about him, his appears to be the quintessential “low ceiling.” Noticeably, his fall coincides with Warren‘s rise. One can reasonably conclude he would need a reversal of Warren’s fortunes to regain momentum, therefore one can assume he’ll need to soon start drawing distinctions with his progressive colleague in the Senate (like, I don’t know, how he was fighting for progressivism decades ago, right around the time she was a Republican.)

Harris’s ceiling is likely higher — she should be more palatable to the left than Biden is, and she should be more palatable to centrists than Sanders and Warren — even if her floor is considerably lower. If one were to rank from 1 to 40 all of the debate performances so far (hmmmmm…), her first debate tops the list. However, her second debate probably ranks in the bottom five. No other candidate would have such deviation.[1] I’m eager to see this third debate as a tiebreaker. Will the real Kamala Harris please stand up?

Group 4: The Co-Favorites

Elizabeth Warren — 18.0 RCP national average
Joe Biden — 29.8 RCP national average

As impressive as Warren’s climb has been, those two polling averages offer a sobering reminder that she still has a lot of work ahead of her. It’s starting to look like she has to reach up and grab Biden, because he’s not falling on his own; as the above chart reveals, he’s actually polling the same as he was six months ago — about 30 points — and he’s twice rebounded from small dips into the mid-20s.

It’s probably the most consequential question we can ask of any primary candidate right now — how will Warren handle the next four months? Will she risk her momentum by going directly after Biden to show how he’s an unacceptable Democratic nominee, or will she continue relying on her slow but steady climb and an Iowa win? Unlike Biden and Sanders (who raised the average age of the first debate‘s first-night candidates by about 20 years) and Warren and Sanders (who leaned so far left at the second debate’s first night I thought they might fall over), this Thursday will be the first time Warren and Biden share a stage. It’s good theater.

Still, though that’s the most important question of the Democratic Primary, the most important question of the 2020 election remains whether Biden can show he’s up to the task of 14 months of campaigning and four years of governing. Though his second debate was certainly an improvement, it was by no means a product Democrats can be proud of, nor are his more recent gaffesdistortions, and subconjunctival hemorrhages. The third debate can help clarify if he’s at least moving in the right direction.


[1]Of the contenders: Booker, Warren, Castro, and Gabbard were excellent both times; Sanders and Buttigieg were solid both times; Klobuchar and Yang were nervous and underwhelming both times; Marianne Williamson might have been high as a kite both times; and Biden and O’Rourke each improved from awful to mediocre.

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